End the Imprisonment of Children & Mothers

Stock Photo woman behind fenceYesterday, The Advocates for Human Rights and more than 120 national and regional organizations wrote to President Obama opposing this week’s opening of the Dilley, Texas family detention center. 

While Congress and the Administration prepare for a joyful holiday season, many children will spend this holiday season in jail instead of with relatives here in the U.S. who are willing to care for them and for their mothers.

These families are not a border security problem. They are among the most vulnerable immigrants, seeking safety and the opportunity to tell their story to a judge. They should not be the centerpiece of a continued “surge” of border enforcement strength. The Advocates and others take issue with the Administration’s message that locking up mothers and children at the border is justified to deter others from attempting a journey that may be necessary to save their lives.

Join us in fighting for the safety of these mothers and children, as well as for ending their incarceration. Contact President Obama and members of U.S. Congress who represent you.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We, the undersigned civil rights and civil liberties, human rights, faith, immigration, labor, criminal justice, legal, children’s rights, and domestic violence advocacy organizations, oppose the opening of the new family detention facility in Dilley, Texas. While Congress and the Administration prepare for a joyful holiday season, many children will be spending this holiday season in jail instead of with relatives here in the U.S. who are already willing to care for them and for their mothers. The Dilley facility will be the largest immigration detention facility in the country, with a planned 2,400 beds to incarcerate children and their mothers who are fleeing extreme violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and rush them through the deportation process without due process.

The regional refugee crisis in Central America demands a humanitarian response by the United States, not a show of force. These mothers have faced unimaginable suffering and danger and have come to the U.S. seeking protection, often with close relatives in the U.S. who are willing and able to provide for them. They are not evading law enforcement; they are seeking out Border Patrol officers.

These families are not a border security problem. They are among the most vulnerable immigrants, seeking safety and the opportunity to tell their story to a judge. They should not be the centerpiece of a continued “surge” of border enforcement strength.
The evidence is undeniable that many of these families qualify for protection under U.S. law. Extremely high percentages of these detained women and their children have been granted asylum by immigration judges or been found to have a credible fear of persecution by asylum officers. We take issue with the Administration’s message that locking up mothers and children at the border is justified to deter others from attempting a journey that may be necessary to save their lives. This rhetoric belies our nation’s legal obligation to protect asylum seekers and is inhumane. These children and mothers are not tools for a border messaging campaign.

As the Dilley facility opens, immigration attorneys volunteering from across the country to provide free representation to families isolated in detention centers at Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas are making a tremendous difference in the lives of these families and the outcomes of their cases. We all know the importance of legal counsel to immigrants who are trying to express their fears and navigate our complex immigration system. But the massive outpouring of pro bono efforts that have resulted in so many asylum victories for families in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas is neither sustainable nor easily replicable, especially for a facility the size of Dilley. We fear that many of the women and children detained in Dilley will go without representation. Without counsel, women are less likely to be found having a credible fear of persecution—the first step to seeking asylum. Credible fear grant rates will fall. And children and mothers who need protection will be returned to danger.

The closure of Artesia as Dilley opens is a clear bait-and-switch. Many families currently detained at Artesia will be transferred to Karnes or to Dilley, not released. As relieved as we are that families will no longer be held at Artesia – a facility in the middle of the desert where repeated violations of human rights and due process occurred – the opening of Dilley signals a ramp up, not a reduction, in family detention.

Detention makes it extremely difficult for traumatized asylum seekers and other vulnerable immigrants to ask for and receive the protections of our laws and the services they need. A detained family may only have a matter of days to seek help before being summarily deported without the opportunity to see a judge. Moreover, your Administration has made it uniquely difficult for these mothers and children to obtain a fair and reasonable release on bond – even when they have absolutely no criminal history and pose no public safety threat, even when they are facing severe medical and psychological difficulties in detention. Furthermore, no satisfactory explanation has been provided as to why proven alternatives to detention (ATDs) are not being considered in those cases where a family cannot otherwise be released, since it would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and accomplish the goal of compliance with removal proceedings. ATDs would also increase access to counsel and therapeutic services for those who experienced trauma.

Detaining mothers and children and rushing them through to deportation is wrong. The public scandal and lawsuit that ended family detention at the T. Don Hutto facility in 2009 demonstrated that detention is a wholly inappropriate place for children and their mothers. But by the middle of next year, your Administration will be detaining nearly 4,000 mothers and children, a forty-fold increase in the use of detention on immigrant families.

With your Executive Actions, you have pledged to protect families. But Dilley will force many families back directly into harm’s way. We urge you to reverse course on family detention and close Dilley.


American Civil Liberties Union
American Immigration Council
American Immigration Lawyers Association
Americans for Immigrant Justice
Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
ASISTA Immigration Assistance
Center for Community Change
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies
Center for Human Rights & International Justice, Boston College
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Refugee & Immigration Ministries
Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
Detention Watch Network
Disciples Home Missions
Disciples Home Missions Family and Children’s Ministries
First Focus
Franciscan Action Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Futures Without Violence
Grassroots Leadership
Human Rights First
Jesuit Conference
Justice Strategies
Kids in Need of Defense
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
Leadership Team of the Felician Sisters of North America
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Council of Jewish Women
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Immigration Forum
National Immigration Law Center
National Latin@ Network: Casa de Esperanza
National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
New Sanctuary Coalition
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Salvadoran American National Network
Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
Southern Border Communities Coalition
Stone Grzegorek & Gonzalez LLP
Tahirih Justice Center
United We Dream
We Belong Together
Wheaton Franciscans
Women’s Refugee Commission
Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago

American Jewish Committee
Disciples Home Missions
Disciples Justice Action Network
Disciples Women
Human Rights Watch
Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity
Physicians for Human Rights
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother
The Advocates for Human Rights
The Episcopal Church
US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE)
Asian Law Alliance
Bill of Rights Defense Committee-Tacoma
Border Action Network
Causa Oregon
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA)
Collaborative Center for Justice
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto
Conversations With Friends (MN)
Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project
Florida Immigrant Coalition
Franciscans for Justice
Gibbs Houston Pauw
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Humane Borders
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Immigrant Law Group PC
Immigrant Rights Clinic
Immigration Center for Women and Children
Immigration Clinic, University of North Carolina School of Law
Immigration Task Force, Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Inter-faith Coalition on Immigration (MN)
Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Kentucky Immigration Reform Committee
Kino Border Initiative
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center
Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice
Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)
Michigan United
Mountain View Dreamers
New Mexico Immigrant Law Center
New Sanctuary Coalition of NY
North Carolina Justice Center
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Palabra Santa Barbara
Pangea Legal Services
People Acting in Community Together
Proyecto Azteca
Redwood Justice Fund
Safe Passage Project
Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN)
Stop The Checkpoints
Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
The Queer Detainee Empowerment Project
University of California Davis School of Law Immigration Clinic
University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic
University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic
VACOLAO – Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations
Walker Gates Vela PLLC
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Official Statement to U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary: Keep Families Together

Stock Photo woman behind fenceBelow is The Advocates for Human Rights’ official statement submitted to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, December 10 (International Human Rights Day), 2014.

Hearing on Keeping Families Together:
The President’s Executive Action on Immigration and
the Need to Pass Comprehensive Reform

“The Advocates for Human Rights is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of internationally recognized human rights in our home community and around the world. The Advocates for Human Rights has provided free legal representation to asylum seekers, investigated and reported on human rights violations, and engaged volunteers in building respect for human rights since 1983.

“The United States is a nation of values, founded on the idea that all people are equal in rights and dignity, no matter what they look like or where they came from. These values are echoed in our obligation to respect the fundamental rights of all persons without discrimination, regardless of national origin, citizenship, or immigration status.1

“International law recognizes that while the United States has the right to control immigration that right is tempered by its obligations to respect the fundamental human rights of all persons. With few exceptions, the United States may not discriminate on the basis of national origin, race, or other status. In designing and enforcing its immigration laws, fundamental human rights, including the right to family unity,2 must be protected.

“The United States’ immigration system, while generous in many ways, is riddled with systemic failures to protect human rights. Some violations result from the statutory framework itself, while others are a matter of administrative policy or agency practice. The United States, through the federal executive branch, has the authority and the obligation to address human rights violations, including through the issuance or updating of administrative guidance, policies, procedures, or regulations to ensure that they strengthen compliance with international human rights standards. At the same time, the United States Congress must take steps to amend laws which violate human rights standards.

“United States immigration policy fails, at nearly every turn, to respect the right to protection of the family and other fundamental human rights. For example, every year tens of thousands of parents of U.S. citizen children3 are deported from the United States because U.S. law does not allow the consideration of family ties in most deportation cases. Individuals frequently are detained without regard to family ties. Thousands of family members languish in line for visas or with little hope of reunification following deportation.

“Congress must take action on immigration to bring our laws into conformance both with our values and our human rights obligations. This includes restoring judicial discretion to immigration judges; providing a meaningful opportunity for parents facing deportation to make care-giving decisions and participate in child custody proceedings; allowing waivers for family reunification for people following deportation; sensibly revising the family-based immigration system to reduce long backlogs; and creating a legalization program that allows families now living in the United States to stay together.

“While Congress must act to ensure U.S. law meets human rights standards, so to must the Administration. The President’s November announcement that certain undocumented persons who have U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien children will be a low deportation priority is a meaningful, if limited, step toward this compliance.

“While the Administration’s move to protect family unity is welcome, its decision to continue the detention of families fleeing to the United States in search of asylum is of grave concern. Just days before the announcement of administrative relief for undocumented Americans, the Administration reiterated its commitment to the imprisonment of families seeking asylum by confirming it plans to open the massive Dilley, Texas family detention center before the end of the year. This action not only violates the obligation to protect the family, but raises serious concerns about the rights to freedom from arbitrary detention and due process of law. The Administration’s detention of families, deliberately designed to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection, also violates our obligations under the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

“Our immigration laws, policies, and practices must reflect our most deeply held values: that each of us is inherently worthy of dignity, fair treatment, and respect for human rights. Both Congress and the President must act to protect these values.”

1 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 2(1).
2 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 17 and 23, articulate the right to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with the family and recognition that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
3 See, e.g., Human Impact Partners, Family Unity, Family Health: How Family-Focused Immigration Reform Will Mean Better Health for Children and Families, June 2013, available at
http://www.familyunityfamilyhealth.org/uploads/images/FamilyUnityFamilyHealth.pdf, which estimates that over 152,000 U.S. children are impacted by deportations each year using 2012 deportation numbers.

The official statement was drafted by Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.

Immigration Officers Illegally Deporting People

Stock Photo woman behind fenceMaria de la Paz, a U.S. citizen, was deported when the immigration agent who interviewed her assumed she was not born in the United States because she couldn’t speak to him in English. Eventually, the U.S. government recognized her citizenship and issued her a passport, but only after her attorney filed a habeas petition on her behalf.

Then there is Nydia R., a transgender woman from Mexico. Despite having been granted asylum by the United States, she was twice unlawfully deported to danger. “I didn’t know the immigration agents could have helped me,” Nydia said, recalling her treatment at the U.S. border after being raped and attacked by gangs. “They had known all the reasons I was trying to come back to the U.S. and even knowing them, they sent me back.” Deported to Mexico, Nydia was kidnapped and trafficked into the sex trade.

These are just two people’s stories which are revealed in a comprehensive study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of expedited deportations ordered by federal immigration agents instead of judges. The ACLA found numerous incidents of people with rights or strong claims to be in the United States who were deported without the chance to be heard.

The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted concerns about the increasing reliance upon summary deportation procedures in its most recent submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will examine the U.S human rights record at its upcoming Universal Periodic Review in May 2015:

The Advocates also raised this concern in its 2014 report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. The Advocates identified these summary proceedings and other streamlined deportation efforts that have created conditions for constitutional violations with no effective remedy.

The ACLU’s investigative report titled “American Exile: Rapid Deportations That Bypass the Courtroom” is based on more than 130 cases of individuals who were deported, sometimes in a matter of hours, without the most basic due process protections — including a hearing before a judge and the chance to defend their claims. These deportations are ordered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a DHS agency embroiled in controversy that has been widely criticized for lacking oversight and accountability.

“Under the current system, thousands of people are subject to the whim and mercy of immigration officers who are acting as prosecutor, judge and deporter,” said Sarah Mehta, researcher with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and author of the report. “These officers are not equipped with the legal knowledge and expertise to decide who has rights or valid claims to enter and live in the United States.”

There are more than 40,000 CBP officers authorized to issue these deportation orders with no lawyers or evidence required and no independent review as mandated by human rights law.

“If fairness and justice matter, our government has to allow people with claims and rights to be in the United States a real opportunity to defend those rights,” said Mehta. “Our government has separated families and deported people to their death when we failed to give them the most basic opportunity to be heard and to defend themselves. We must do better — both for those facing deportation and the families left behind.”

According to the report findings, in 2013 the United States conducted 438,421 deportations. In more than 363,279 of those deportations — over 83 percent — there was no hearing or review by a judge before the person was removed. These deportation orders come with the same significant penalties as deportation orders issued by a judge after a full hearing. An immigration officer can order someone deported and banned from the United States anywhere from five years to a lifetime. If an officer makes a mistake and deports some with a right or valid claim to remain in the United States there is virtually no way for that person to rescind the deportation order.

Prior to 1996, the vast majority of people facing deportations from this country had immigration court hearings. Now most do not, opening the way for errors or outright abuse.

In addition to information from interviews with deportees, their families, lawyers and community advocates, “American Exile” includes recommendations to the federal government that are even more important in light of President Obama’s recent executive action announcement, which included both deferrals of deportations and new DHS-wide prosecutorial discretion guidance. For example, there are recommendations to immigration enforcement agencies on screening for individuals who qualify for relief and to ensure that people unlawfully deported have the chance to fix those errors.

Last Friday, a report by the U.N. Committee Against Torture expressed concerns over “the expansion of expedited removal procedures, which do not adequately take into account the special circumstances of asylum seekers and other persons in need of international protection.”

The committee’s “concluding observations” also expressed concerns over CBP personnel failing to identify and refer many of the individuals placed in expedited removal for an asylum-screening interview and recommended to the United States to “review the use of expedited removal procedures, and guarantee access to counsel.”

Read the full report, executive summary, and more.
Access Spanish-language versions.

This blog post is based on a news release received by the American Civil Liberties Union. Attorney Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of Advocacy, contributed to the post.



Bill Sets to Block President’s Immigration Action

Stock Photo woman behind fenceToday the House of Representatives takes up H.R. 5759, the “Prevent Executive Amnesty Act.” Don’t feel bad if you’ve not heard of this bill. Introduced just two days ago, the bill bypassed any committee debate or discussion, going straight to the House floor today.

Introduced by Congressman Yoho (R-FL-3rd), the bill is an all-out attempt to outlaw President Obama’s November announcement that his administration will be allowing certain long-term but undocumented residents of the United States to register for deferred action.

The problems with Mr. Yoho’s bill, however, are myriad and illustrate the perils of bypassing the democratic process and commonsense in a rush to score political points.

Mr. Yoho’s bill seeks to block the administration from treating these long-term residents “as if they were lawfully present or had a lawful immigration status.” But the president’s November announcement does neither of these things. People who register for deferred action are not being granted a legal status. They are being put – for now – at the bottom of the priority list for deportations but like any alien – legal or not – they can be excluded or deported for any number of reasons. Contrary to the amnesty meme recirculating ad infinitum amongst opponents of the president’s action, they have not suddenly catapulted to the head of the line for immigration status. The president’s action leads at best to a life in limbo.

To accomplish his feat of blocking the president’s action, Mr. Yoho’s bill would to apply to any request for “exemption from, or deferral of, removal.” Mr. Yoho’s choice of words demonstrates the peril of wading into the marsh of immigration verbiage.

“Deferral of removal” is specifically authorized by regulation for persons who have been granted relief under the Convention Against Torture: 8 CFR 208.17. I think Mr. Yoho means “deferred action.” They’re different things. Deferred action has been used for decades to as “an act of administrative convenience to the government which gives some cases lower priority. 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(14) (2011).

Mr. Yoho’s mistake illustrates two fundamental problems (although I’m sure there are others) with H.R. 5759. First, immigration laws are tricky. Draft in haste and repent at leisure.

Second, this wildly ill-informed bill has the potential to undermine protections which Congress has granted to survivors of torture, victims of persecution, crime victims, human trafficking victims, and others deserving of humanitarian protections.

Mr. Yoho appears to have a passing familiarity with these protections, given the exceptions he includes in H.R. 5759. His choice of language, however, seems to indicate that Mr. Yoho either doesn’t know what he’s doing or, worse, that he seeks deprive victims of trafficking and others of the means of earning a living or remaining lawfully in the United States while the often lengthy process by which they can be registered as lawful permanent residents.

Mr. Yoho also would exempt from his bill those aliens who are at “imminent risk of serious bodily harm or death.” Again, this seems to be either a clumsy attempt to allow people whose applications for asylum are pending or who have been granted withholding of removal under section 241(b)(3) of the Immigration and Nationality Act – a technical provision that, while similar to a grant of asylum, leaves an individual in the somewhat awkward position of having been found to face persecution of deported but who, often for technical reasons does will never be eligible to file for lawful permanent residency or, ultimately, to become a U.S. citizen. If that is indeed Mr. Yoho’s intent, his close-but-not-quite language in the proposed bill misses the mark and would fail to ensure that everyone allowed by statute to remain in the United States following a finding by an immigration judge that they have a clear probability of persecution is able to work. The absurd, counterproductive, and cruel result would be to render people who, pursuant to our obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States will not deport and who will remain indefinitely in the United States can never work.

Unlike the picture Mr. Yoho wishes to paint, where aliens in the United States can neatly and easily be categorized as “legal” or “illegal,” good public policy considers more than political labelling. It takes into account that people who come to this country in search of freedom often wait years for a decision to be reached on their claims for protection. Would Mr. Yoho’s bill render these asylum seekers unable to work to support themselves during years of government delays – delays often resulting from severe and chronic under-investment in our immigration courts? They are, after all, without immigration status. Would people on Temporary Protected Status, specifically authorized by statute at sec. 244 of the INA, no longer be eligible to work while remaining in the US during periods of natural disaster or civil strife? Such a result would mean terrible hardship for extremely vulnerable individuals and undermine our protection system. Keep in mind that none of these individuals is eligible for public benefits.

Member of Congress who vote in support of H.R. 5759 should ask themselves whether scoring a political point warrants the risk of tearing asunder the shreds of stability America’s most vulnerable migrants now have while they seek humanitarian protection.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, attorney and The Advocates for Human Rights’ Advocacy Program

Transcript of President Obama’s Address to the Nation on Immigration


Remarks of President Barack Obama
Address to the Nation on Immigration
The White House
November 20, 2014

“My fellow Americans, tonight, I’d like to talk with you about immigration.

“For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.

“But today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it.

“Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see the competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less. All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America. And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.

“It’s been this way for decades. And for decades, we haven’t done much about it.

“When I took office, I committed to fixing this broken immigration system. And I began by doing what I could to secure our borders. Today, we have more agents and technology deployed to secure our southern border than at any time in our history. And over the past six years, illegal border crossings have been cut by more than half. Although this summer, there was a brief spike in unaccompanied children being apprehended at our border, the number of such children is now actually lower than it’s been in nearly two years. Overall, the number of people trying to cross our border illegally is at its lowest level since the 1970s. Those are the facts.

“Meanwhile, I worked with Congress on a comprehensive fix, and last year, 68 Democrats, Republicans, and Independents came together to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate. It wasn’t perfect. It was a compromise, but it reflected common sense.  It would have doubled the number of border patrol agents, while giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line. And independent experts said that it would help grow our economy and shrink our deficits.

“Had the House of Representatives allowed that kind of a bill a simple yes-or-no vote, it would have passed with support from both parties, and today it would be the law. But for a year and a half now, Republican leaders in the House have refused to allow that simple vote.

“Now, I continue to believe that the best way to solve this problem is by working together to pass that kind of common sense law. But until that happens, there are actions I have the legal authority to take as President – the same kinds of actions taken by Democratic and Republican Presidents before me – that will help make our immigration system more fair and more just.

“Tonight, I am announcing those actions.

“First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.

“Second, I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.

“Third, we’ll take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.

“I want to say more about this third issue, because it generates the most passion and controversy. Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable – especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why, over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent. And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mother who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.

“But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is, millions of immigrants – in every state, of every race and nationality – will still live here illegally. And let’s be honest – tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic.  Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you. It’s also not who we are as Americans. After all, most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours.

“As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it: “They are a part of American life.”

“Now here’s the thing: we expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect that those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes – you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.

“That’s what this deal is. Now let’s be clear about what it isn’t. This deal does not apply to anyone who has come to this country recently. It does not apply to anyone who might come to America illegally in the future. It does not grant citizenship, or the right to stay here permanently, or offer the same benefits that citizens receive – only Congress can do that. All we’re saying is we’re not going to deport you.

“I know some of the critics of this action call it amnesty. Well, it’s not. Amnesty is the immigration system we have today – millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.

“That’s the real amnesty – leaving this broken system the way it is. Mass amnesty would be unfair. Mass deportation would be both impossible and contrary to our character. What I’m describing is accountability – a commonsense, middle ground approach: If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.

“The actions I’m taking are not only lawful, they’re the kinds of actions taken by every single Republican President and every single Democratic President for the past half century. And to those Members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary. Meanwhile, don’t let a disagreement over a single issue be a dealbreaker on every issue. That’s not how our democracy works, and Congress certainly shouldn’t shut down our government again just because we disagree on this. Americans are tired of gridlock. What our country needs from us right now is a common purpose – a higher purpose.

“Most Americans support the types of reforms I’ve talked about tonight. But I understand the disagreements held by many of you at home. Millions of us, myself included, go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking work to become citizens. So we don’t like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizenship. I know that some worry immigration will change the very fabric of who we are, or take our jobs, or stick it to middle-class families at a time when they already feel like they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal for over a decade. I hear these concerns. But that’s not what these steps would do. Our history and the facts show that immigrants are a net plus for our economy and our society. And I believe it’s important that all of us have this debate without impugning each other’s character.

“Because for all the back-and-forth of Washington, we have to remember that this debate is about something bigger. It’s about who we are as a country, and who we want to be for future generations.

“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?

“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together?

“Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us? Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs, businesses, and industries right here in America?

“That’s what this debate is all about. We need more than politics as usual when it comes to immigration; we need reasoned, thoughtful, compassionate debate that focuses on our hopes, not our fears.

“I know the politics of this issue are tough. But let me tell you why I have come to feel so strongly about it. Over the past few years, I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs, without taking a dime from the government, and at risk at any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids. I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers. I’ve seen the courage of students who, except for the circumstances of their birth, are as American as Malia or Sasha; students who bravely come out as undocumented in hopes they could make a difference in a country they love. These people – our neighbors, our classmates, our friends – they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America’s success.

“Tomorrow, I’ll travel to Las Vegas and meet with some of these students, including a young woman named Astrid Silva.  Astrid was brought to America when she was four years old. Her only possessions were a cross, her doll, and the frilly dress she had on. When she started school, she didn’t speak any English. She caught up to the other kids by reading newspapers and watching PBS, and became a good student. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mother cleaned other people’s homes. They wouldn’t let Astrid apply to a technology magnet school for fear the paperwork would out her as an undocumented immigrant – so she applied behind their back and got in. Still, she mostly lived in the shadows – until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported. It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her, and today, Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree.

“Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid – or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in?

“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.

“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.

“That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come.

“Thank you, God bless you, and God bless this country we love.”

Don’t Put Mothers and Their Children in Prison

Today’sDon't put kids in prison Twitter feed is abuzz with the news that the White House intends to announce administrative action for some of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented Americans. While the contours of the relief remain unclear, President Obama’s action undoubtedly moves the immigration reform debate to a new place and promises to make real – at least in a limited way for the very near future – the right to family unity guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights at articles 17 and 23.

But as the administration moves to keep families together with one hand, the other hand is doubling down on the detention of families fleeing to the United States in search of asylum.

The United States is required to uphold the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, but earlier this year the Obama administration began using immigration detention to deter asylum seekers in a misguided and draconian approach to people fleeing persecution. Although President Obama has framed the arrival of asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as a humanitarian crisis, the approach taken by the administration has been anything but humanitarian.

But just days before the planned announcement of administrative relief for undocumented Americans, the administration reiterated its commitment to the imprisonment of families seeking asylum by confirming it plans to open the massive Dilley, Texas family detention center before the end of the year.

“The Administration is playing more games with the lives of women and children fleeing violence. This time it’s a shell game moving people from one jail to another without regard for their well-being or human rights,” said Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

There’s a dire need for the president to take administrative action on immigration. The first step should be ending the detention of families in the United States.

In a call for action, The Advocates for Human Rights, along with a host of other organizations, signed the following letter to President Obama, urging him to address the detention and expedited deportation of children and their mothers fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

November 18, 2014

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

We, the undersigned civil rights and civil liberties, human rights, faith, immigration, labor, criminal justice, legal, children’s rights, and domestic violence advocacy organizations, are gravely concerned about your administration’s massive expansion of detention for young children and their mothers who are fleeing extreme violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Though many of these children and their mothers qualify for asylum protection under U.S. law, they are being deported so rapidly as to deny them a fair opportunity to seek protection.

As you consider taking executive action to reform the immigration system, we urge you to address the fundamental problems with the detention and expedited deportation of these children and their mothers. Indeed, executive action can wait no longer. Delay has only meant more broken families, more workers stuck in the shadows, and more businesses that are stymied by the broken system. We urge you to act immediately to do what is within your legal authority to fix the immigration system and take bold and inclusive action to make our enforcement system more humane.

We applaud your goal of protecting immigrant families whose lives are interwoven into the fabric of American communities. For that same reason, we call upon you to stop detaining these vulnerable children and mothers who are fleeing violence in Central America and hoping to join with relatives already living in the United States. In 2009, abuse and mistreatment at a Texas facility compelled Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop using the facility to detain families. Detention profoundly impacts the emotional and physical well-being of children. It inflicts unspeakable pain on mothers to watch their children suffer in detention. It forces them to give up hope. Most of the mothers currently in detention have relatives or sponsors in the United States willing to take them in and support them. They do not have to be–and should not be–in detention.

The evidence is undeniable that many of these children and their mothers, who have been raped, kidnapped, beaten or shot to near death, are refugees who qualify for protection under U.S. law. Extremely high percentages of these detained women and their children have been granted asylum by immigration judges or been found to have a credible fear of persecution by asylum officers. Domestic violence in these Central American countries has reached crisis proportions. A U.N. Special Rapporteur reported in July that violence against women in Honduras is “widespread and systematic” and that 95 percent of violent crimes against women go unpunished by the police or other law enforcement. In most cases however, the U.S. government continues to rush these children and families through an expedited process, and has deported many back into the hands of their abusers and the very danger from which they fled. They deserve better treatment by the United States.

We urge you to stop the dramatic expansion of family detention, including the building of an enormous new facility in Dilley, TX. Instead, we recommend you greatly expand the use of alternatives to detention, bonds and other methods that are far less costly for American taxpayers and are highly effective in ensuring court appearances. Moreover, the removal process must be made more fair and guarantee that families fleeing violence have meaningful access to asylum, including access to legal counsel.

We look forward to the reforms you will implement on immigration and ask that you properly address the needs of these families. Please contact Greg Chen, Director of Advocacy at American Immigration Lawyers Association, gchen@aila.org, 202/507-7615, with any questions or followup.


National Organizations
African American Ministers In Action
Alliance for a Just Society
America’s Voice Education Fund
American Civil Liberties Union
American Immigration Council
American Immigration Lawyers Association
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Asian Law Alliance
Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence
ASISTA Immigration Assistance
Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities
Center for Community Change
Central American Resource Center (CARECEN-DC)
Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness
Church World Service
Coalition on Human Needs
Detention Watch Network
Farmworker Justice
First Focus
Futures Without Violence
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Hispanic Federation
Immigration Center for Women and Children
International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Jesuit Conference of the United States
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
LatinoJustice PRLDEF
Leadership Conference of Women Religious
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC)
National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA)
National Council of LA Raza (NCLR)
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Immigration Law Center
National Immigration Project
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health
National Network to End Domestic Violence
Pax Christi USA
Refugee and Immigration Ministries, Disciples Home Missions (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ)
Salvadoran American National Network (SANN)
Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN)
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
Tahirih Justice Center
United We Dream
Washington Office on Latin America
Women’s Refugee Commission
State and Local Organizations
Advocates for Human Rights (Minnesota)
Alianzas de Phoenixville (Pennsylvania)
Alliance San Diego (California)
American Gateways (Texas)
Americans for Immigrant Justice (Florida)
Annunciation House, Inc. (Texas)
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles (California)
Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (Washington, D.C.)
CASA de Maryland
CASA de Virginia
Causa Oregon
Central American Resource Center-D.C. (Washington, D.C.)
Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota
Church Council of Greater Seattle (Washington)
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) (California)
Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition
Comite de Derechos Humanos Forks (Washington)
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (California)
Community to Community Development (Washington)
Community to Community, Bellingham (Washington)
Conversations With Friends (Minnesota)
Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Inc. (Texas)
Employee Rights Center-San Diego (California)
Equality New Mexico
The Family Partnership (Minnesota)
Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc
Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (Arizona)
Florida Immigrant Coalition
Friends of Broward Detainees (Florida)
Good Shepherd United Church of Christ (Arizona)
Grassroots Leadership (Texas)
Greater Hartford Legal Aid (Connecticut)
Green Valley / Sahuaritas Samaritans (Arizona)
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society-Pennsylvania
Hispanic American Law Student Association, Florida Coastal School of Law
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Human Rights Law Society, Florida Coastal School of Law
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Immigrant and Human Rights Clinic, Florida Coastal School of Law
Immigrant Defense Project (New York)
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Interfaith Center for Worker Justice-San Diego (California)
Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice-San Diego (California)
La Raza Centro Legal (California)
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (Texas)
Las Cruces Friends, Quakers, Peace and Social Concerns Committee (New Mexico)
Latino Advocacy (Washington)
League of Women Voters of Greater Las Cruces (New Mexico)
Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (California)
Make The Road New York
Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)
Migrant Power Movement (Pennsylvania)
The Minneapolis Foundation (Minnesota)
Nationalities Service Center (Pennsylvania)
New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice
New York Immigration Coalition
North Carolina Justice Center
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
OneAmerica (Washington)
Palm Beach County Coalition for Immigrant Rights (PBCCIR) (Florida)
Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC)
Philadelphia chapter of Japanese American Citizens League (Pennsylvania)
Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) (Pennsylvania)
Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project (Massachusetts)
Promise Arizona
Public Counsel (California)
Reformed Church of Highland Park (New Jersey)
Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) (Texas)
Refugio del Rio Grande (Texas)
Sanctuary for Families (New York)
The Second Step (Massachusetts)
Sisters of Mercy (Nebraska)
Sisters of Mercy, Mid-Atlantic Community Leadership Team
Southern Poverty Law Center
Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
Texas Appleseed
UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic (California)
UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS)-San Francisco (California)
Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network (UUPLAN)
Voces de la Frontera (Wisconsin)
Waco Immigration Alliance (Texas)
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Women’s Foundation of Minnesota
Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago (Illinois)

By: Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.